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Legacy of architect Henry Hornbostel lives on

By Kurt Shaw
Sunday, August 21, 2005

Even a scant overview of the history of Pittsburgh architecture would not be complete without the mention of Henry Hornbostel, whose designs range from Downtown landmarks such as the Grant Building and the City-County Building to homes heading east from Squirrel Hill to Monroeville.

Hornbostel’s stamp on Pittsburgh’s urban sprawl is so ubiquitous that even contemporary architects like Michael Dennis, principal of Michael Dennis & Associates of Boston and professor of architecture at MIT, couldn’t ignore Hornbostel’s influence when he set about designing the newer half of Carnegie Mellon University’s campus in 1987.

Recently completed, the new half looks much like the old half, which was designed by Hornbostel in 1904 and was the winning entry in the Carnegie Technical Schools Competition, right down to the cream-colored brick exterior.

“He was trying to compliment rather than rival Hornbostel, I’m sure,” says Walter C. Kidney, author of the architect’s first and only monograph, “Henry Hornbostel: An Architect’s Master Touch” ($49.95, published by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation in cooperation with Roberts Rinehart Publishers).

An architectural historian with the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, Kidney says that Hornbostel “was much more original than most.”

“I’d say Hornbostel and Ernest Flagg were the two big original thinkers of the American Renaissance,” Kidney says. “They were sort of in it, but not all the way in it. They did what they felt like doing.”

Perhaps of all his designs, the original Carnegie Tech campus proves this the most.

On the outside, the classically styled exteriors made of cream-colored brick and white terra-cotta trim are every bit the perfect example of the American Renaissance period. But inside, visitors will find that the architect took some unusual liberties — such as dramatic vaulted ceilings, curved staircases clad in Guastavino tile, industrial-looking archways made of concrete and steel, as well as railings made of steel pipe.

Though the use of these materials undoubtedly references the purpose of the institution as a training ground for industry, still, to this day, the combination of these materials into a stunning Beaux-Arts-inspired style has a commanding yet graceful presence.

“He was sort of playing around with the technical theme, yet using a lot of elegance, too,” Kidney says.

The College of Fine Arts building, completed in 1916, is even more over-the-top with exterior niches carved with specific architectural orders and motifs in mind. Inside, more art historical references abound. Specifically, the floors in the vestibule and on the first floor have inlaid marble tile that features the footprints of some the world’s greatest buildings, such as Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s, Chartres Cathedral, the Parthenon and the Temple of Horus at Edfu.

A magnificently painted ceiling depicts those buildings and more as well as portraits of many of the most influential architects, artists, composers, writers throughout history.

Just as over the top was the architect himself.

A flamboyant figure, Hornbostel was born in 1867, the same year as the equally flamboyant Frank Lloyd Wright. Like Wright, he was a snappy dresser, oftentimes spotted wearing red string ties (rumored to have been fashioned from ladies’ silk garters) below a proud chin that sported a dramatic Vandyke beard.

His affinity with Wright stops there, however. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Hornbostel was classically trained at Columbia University in New York City and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Though he had designed a number of buildings, even bridges, before winning the 1904 Carnegie Technical Schools Competition, it was his subsequent move to Pittsburgh that would begin the most ambitious part of his career.

As the founder of the Carnegie Tech Department of Architecture and as architect for numerous prominent buildings around town such as the Temple Rodef Shalom (1904), the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall (1907), Webster Hall hotel (1926) and the City-County Building (1915-1917, with Edward B. Lee), Hornbostel played an important role in shaping Pittsburgh’s architectural image in the first decades of the 20th century.

In addition to his role as the head of Carnegie Tech’s Department of Architecture, he also had a private practice in Pittsburgh, taught at Columbia University in New York and was at various times a partner in the New York firms of Howell, Stokes & Hornbostel; Wood, Palmer & Hornbostel; Palmer & Hornbostel; and Palmer, Hornbostel & Jones.

Although the bulk of his practice centered in and around Pittsburgh — where the 110 works he designed there represent roughly about half of his total output — Hornbostel executed projects throughout the country. They include several bridges in New York City, government buildings in Albany, N.Y., Hartford, Conn., and Oakland, Calif., as well as the campus plans of the University of California at Berkeley, Emory University in Atlanta, and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

However, even with such ambitious projects coming to fruition, especially in the area of designing buildings for academic institutions, the architect’s greatest, most ambitious, campus plan was never realized.

Designed for the Western University of Pennsylvania in 1908, the same year the school changed its name to the University of Pittsburgh, The Acropolis Plan, according to “Pittsburgh: An urban portrait” by Franklin Toker, called for the construction of a series of buildings across the 43 acres of hillside, facing southeast toward Forbes and Fifth avenues.

The award-winning design chosen from a national competition that garnered 61 entries was dubbed the Acropolis Plan after the Pittsburgh Leader newspaper compared it to the Athenian Acropolis when it was still intact.

Proposed as an ongoing evolutionary plan of buildings designed in the Classical style, which allowed for the university to grow and add buildings as it would see fit, it included plans for a 1,000 ft. subterranean escalator that would run right up its center to reach the climaxing temple that topped it.

A wildly ambitious idea, but as Toker, a University of Pittsburgh professor of the history of art and architecture, contends, “Hornbostel had already proved his mettle with the Carnegie technical school, plus he had come in second with the competition for University of California at Berkeley, so he knew what people wanted in a campus.”

The cornerstone for the first building to be built — the School of Mines — was laid in October 1908, and four more built between then and 1920. But ironically, the project was halted with the discovery of previously cleared and covered over coal mines, some of which were still smoldering with fire.

By 1920, under the direction of Chancellor John Bowman, the university scrapped much of Hornbostel’s plans in favor of the Cathedral of Learning. Conceived to be to be the second tallest skyscraper in the world after the Woolworth Building, the then so called “Tower of Learning” would be designed, not by Hornbostel, but instead one of the foremost Gothic architects of the time — Philadelphian Charles Klauder.

“Plan A and Plan B have an enormous amount in common in terms of prestige,” Toker says. “They were both products of the huge over-arching vision and confidence that Pittsburgh had of itself 100 years ago.”

Today, of the buildings there that Hornbostel originally designed, only two remain. That and the question, as Toker so perfectly puts it: “Would Hornbostel’s Acropolis have been the world’s most gigantic white elephant or would it have made the University famous around the globe for this stunning outlay of buildings?”

Stunning is a word that can be applied to many of Hornbostels’s projects, not the least of which is the majestic Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland, which is loosely based on the Mausoleum Halicarnassus in Southwest Turkey, and the ornate Temple Rodef Shalom in Shadyside, which has the largest Guastavino tile dome in the world. The same can be said of the various private residences he designed, most of which still exist.

Originally designed for Morris Friedman, president of Reliance Mortgage Co., in 1925, the home is now that of Dr. Michael Nieland, a dermatopathologist who has owned it since 1976.

Even though he has lived there nearly 30 years, Nieland’s enthusiasm for the house hasn’t waned.

“The home is endlessly interesting from my point of view in terms of all of its various nooks and crannies,” he says.

An art and antique collector, Nieland says the possibilities of placing art and decorative objects within the various display spaces and built-in cabinetry are seemingly endless. That and special features like an indoor fountain on the first floor and a second-floor library make this house especially unique.

But even with all of that, what attracted Nieland to the home initially was the entranceway, which has a large iron door that opens into a vestibule made of carved limestone. Inside the vestibule, an arched inner door is filled with etched glass that has an ornate Art Nouveau pattern. Beyond that door is the entrance hall.

“The front entrance hall is long, so when you enter the house it’s not immediately apparent what the floor plan of the house is so there is a little bit of mystery when you come in,” Nieland says.

Nieland’s favorite aspect of the inside of the home is the layout of the various rooms, which gradually unfolds to the visitor as one moves through it, further adding to that sense of mystery.

Even on a small scale such as this, the mystery and drama that Hornbostel, who died in 1961, was able to create is why his legacy continues to live on and why he will no doubt continue to long be considered one of Pittsburgh’s most important and influential architects.

Kurt Shaw can be reached at or .

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review © Pittsburgh Tribune Review

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